by Keli‘i Akina
If Hawaii voters care about stopping corruption, they must change the culture that allows it. And that change begins at the ballot box.
That’s the opinion of Judge Dan Foley, longtime civil rights lawyer and head of Hawaii’s Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct. The Commission was charged by the Legislature with the task of examining government ethics, campaign spending and lobbying. The goal was to help root out the corruption that has damaged public trust in state and county government.
In service of that goal, the Commission produced a 396-page final report that included 28 legislative recommendations. Twenty were passed by the Legislature this year, which Foley calls, “a remarkable success.”
During an interview on “Hawaii Together” on ThinkTech Hawaii, Foley and I discussed the victories and disappointments from the Legislature’s treatment of ethics issues this year. Foley was optimistic about having so many of the Commission’s recommendations adopted by the Legislature, adding: “This is the first regular session, and there’s another one coming up. … We’re at halftime. … We had a good first half — 20 of 28 ain’t bad.”
One of his disappointments was the failure of an important transparency measure that would have capped fees for open records requests. Public access to government records is a critical deterrent to corruption, but the current fee structure allows some agencies to discourage requesters.
“Right now,” said Foley, “access to public records depends on how much money you have. People with money can buy their way in; people without money cannot.”
The short legislative sessions and the chaos created by the conference committee system also frustrate transparency. Foley pointed to the last-minute passage of the state budget as “the poster child on how not to do things, and that should not be repeated.”
“You can extend a session,” he added. “You can come up with your draft budget earlier and not wait until the last minute. People should not be voting on measures they haven’t read.”
Foley told me he is optimistic that the Commission’s work will help improve government ethics in Hawaii. But he acknowledged that there will always be some people who try to push the limits of what is legal. That’s why he believes that voters are the real key to stopping corruption in our state.
“Ultimately, it comes down to the voter,” he said. “People complain about the Legislature. They’ll say the presiding officer is a dictator, or the chair of the Ways and Means or Finance committees is a dictator. [But] everybody in the Legislature has one vote. If people are unsatisfied with the presiding officers, it’s because the majority of that body allows it. Same with the chair, or same with measures. And the voters put them in and keep them in every two years.”
Cynicism about politicians and pronouncements about the futility of stopping corruption only feed into the problem. To stop corruption means changing the culture that turns a blind eye to it or accepts it as an inevitable feature of government. That’s why it’s up to us to make a change.
Foley agrees. His message for voters is simple: “Let’s get engaged, as bad as it is. … Just because [our government has] been, let’s say, a little less than honest and transparent in the past, doesn’t mean it can’t be honest and transparent in the future … You roll up your sleeves, you get to work, you be positive, you don’t give up, and you can accomplish a lot of things.”
Keli‘i Akina is president and CEO of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii.